The Stack Archive

Online ad czar berates adblockers as freedom-hating ‘mafia’

Tue 26 Jan 2016

Randall Rothenburg

In the opening speech of the annual conference of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), its president and CEO Randall Rothenburg has poured fuel on last week’s controversial conference ban on the Adblock Plus extension’s founders by branding them as “profiteers”, comparing them to “the mafia”, accusing them of hindering free speech and labelling them the face of “the rich and self-righteous”.

Rothenburg doesn’t seem much mollified by his successful ‘disinviting’ of the German Adblock Plus team ten days previously, which wrought much controversy around the net as representing in itself a bit of a hindrance to free discussion; he describes the rejected envoys as an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes”.

The full speech begins with an overview of the development of the $600 billion online ad industry in the twenty years since the formation of the Internet Advertising Council in 1996, and includes imprecations to fight the current wave of Islamophobia being stirred up by ’presidential candidates’ and direct comparisons between freedom of expression and freedom to advertise, citing advertising’s pivotal connection with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And then he gets serious. Addressing why the Adblock Plus team were banned from the conference, Rothenburg accuses them of “subverting freedom of the press” and “operating a business model predicated on censorship of content”. He also quoted a 2013 article by German blogger Sascha Pallenberg which characterised the AdBlock Plus team as “a mafia-like advertising network”.

Rothenburg went on to accuse the Plussers of offering insincere invitations to genuinely open dialogue about adblocking, claiming that the company offers only an “incessant monologue” on the subject, and that it failed to follow up on a summit it arranged last summer.

“Scores of publishing executives were invited. Two showed up. They could get none of their questions answered about how the company intends to administer its so-called “Acceptable Ads” program, who would serve on that program’s allegedly independent board, what powers that board would have, or how its payment plans would work. Each used the same word to describe the AdBlock-Plus executives: “disingenuous.”

Perhaps most notably, neither of these publishers has received a single follow-up call in the four months since “Camp David” took place. So much for dialogue.

Of course, none of this surprises me. This is what happens when your only motivation, your only metric, is money. For that is what AdBlock-Plus is: an old-fashioned extortion racket, gussied up in the flowery but false language of contemporary consumerism.”

To be honest, Rothenburg isn’t entirely unjustified in his criticism, even if he is inflating thought balloons into Zeppelins. Adblock Plus does indeed take money – lots of money – from advertisers who wish to be included in its ‘acceptable ads’ program, wherein participating advertisers’ ads will be shown to users unless the Adblock Plus user changes a preference in the plugin. Nor does AdBlock Plus redistribute this money to starving forest families driven into the wilderness by the mundanities of internet advertising. 30% of recovered revenue from some of the biggest advertisers around, including Microsoft, Google and Amazon, is not a minor clatter of coins. Furthermore the Adblock Plus team seem more moved by the financial benefits of allowing big players past the initial blocks than by the negative feedback from Adblock Plus users.

The comic effect of Rothenburg’s vituperations (wherein a very rich man who has made money by distracting people from news accuses other rich men of repressing free speech by removing these obstructions) are offset by the fact that Adblock Plus has become so powerful not through original technology or an original idea, but simply by dint of an established user base that’s now estimated to be heading for 200 million.

As Rothenburg goes on to observe in his keynote, there are many other adblockers available – a situation that doesn’t fill him with delight. It would be interesting to know if his ire would be equally raised by a successful adblocking technology that hadn’t fallen prey to quite so many temptations as the power of ABP has handed its originators.


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